Exposing the first 20th-Century genocide: The Armenian genocide

An interview with author and translator Siobhan Nash-Marshall.

Siobhan Nash-Marshall is uniquely placed to offer penetrating and illuminating insights into one of the darkest and most horrific chapters in human history.

The chair of philosophy at Manhattanville College in New York is the author of The Sins of the Fathers, a book about the Armenian Genocide, and translator of the newly published novella “Silent Angel” by Antonia Arslan, which is set against the backdrop of the genocide.

Siobhan Nash-Marshall

Dr. Nash-Marshall’s book exposes Turkish denialism about the genocide and shows how the dehumanizing effects of modern philosophy are responsible for the butchering of a whole people. Her translation of Silent Angel has provided readers in the English-speaking world with another book by Armenian-Italian novelist Antonia Arslan, whose earlier novel about the genocide, Skylark Farm, was an international bestseller.

In this exclusive interview for The Epoch Times, Nash-Marshall speaks by email of the genocide and about her translation of Arslan’s latest book.

Joseph Pearce: Silent Angel is a novella set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide. Could you give a brief explanation and description of this genocide and when it happened?

Siobhan Nash-Marshall: The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century. The triumvirate at the helm of the Ottoman Empire at the time (Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha) took advantage of the World War I and launched a full-scale slaughter of the Armenians. A million and a half of them (that is, three-quarters of the Armenian people who lived in their historic homeland at the time, in what is today called Eastern Turkey) were slaughtered in the most horrendous ways imaginable.

The men were separated from their families. They were usually killed on the spot. The women and children were then forced to “relocate” by foot into the Syrian desert. Every sort of horror was visited upon them along the way. Most of them died of thirst, starvation, fatigue.

The genocide is a very well documented event. Newspapers from every continent chronicled it in gruesome detail. The Allies coined the term “crime against humanity” when they called upon the Turks to stop killing the Armenians. Pope Benedict XV, in his letter to the sultan, called it the “leading of the Armenian people almost to its extinction.” It was part of an operation that the U.S. ambassador at the time, Henry Morgenthau, called the “whitewashing of Anatolia.”

Mr. Pearce: Apart from being the translator of Silent Angel, you are also the author of The Sins of the Fathers, a book about the Armenian Genocide. Could you tell us a little about the book?

Ms. Nash-Marshall: My primary concern in Sins of the Fathers is modern philosophy. This is not strange for a Catholic. Pope Leo XIII railed against modernism. He also tried to protect the Armenians during the pre-genocidal massacres (1894–1896) perpetrated by Sultan Abdul Hamid. This is not a coincidence.

In my book, I tried to shed light on five crucial characteristics of the Armenian Genocide.

First, it was predicated on modern Western thought: All of its perpetrators read and carefully studied 19th-century European philosophers.

Second, it shows the price of modern political hypocrisy. The genocide did not happen overnight. It was preceded by nearly 30 years of negotiations in which the European Powers called for reforms in the Armenian provinces, signed treaties of all kinds with the sultan, but let the Armenians be slaughtered. Pope Leo XIII intervened and tried to mediate between the European Powers and negotiate with the sultan because he was well aware of the plight of the Armenians and the hypocrisy of the Powers.

Armenian-Italian novelist Antonia Arslan. (Courtesy of the Augustine Institute)

Third, the Armenian Genocide highlights the historical engineering inherent in modern philosophy. Although the actual killing of the Armenians was mostly completed by 1923, the government of Turkey today is still trying desperately to rewrite Armenians out of the history of the lands of modern Turkey.

Fourth, the Armenian Genocide highlights the social engineering inherent in modern philosophy. The Armenians were killed in order to construct a “new Turkey” built along the lines dictated by French and German philosophy. [In Sins of the Fathers, Dr. Nash-Marshall shows how the intelligentsia of the “new Turkey” were inspired by Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and also by the French philosopher Auguste Comte.]

Fifth, the Armenian Genocide was violently anti-Christian.

The Armenian Genocide thus gives us a very good image in which to understand the problems that we are facing today. We too see historical engineering, social engineering, violent anti-Christianity. The Armenian Genocide shows what happens if we don’t pay attention to the signs.

Mr. Pearce: The original title of Silent Angel was Book of Moush. Could you tell us something about the Book of Moush and how it relates to the plot of Silent Angel?

Ms. Nash-Marshall: Moush was one of the Armenian provinces in the Ottoman Empire. It was very important culturally and religiously. It had important monasteries, at one of which, for instance, Casper, one of the Three Kings of the New Testament, was buried, or so Armenian oral traditions tell us.

As the location was important, so too is the Book of Moush. It is called the “Msho Charantir”—the “Homiliary of Moush.” It actually exists. It is the largest extant Armenian manuscript. It is on display in the Matenadaran, the great library in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. One can plainly see its two pieces.

All Armenians know the story of the book. It was divided into two parts during the genocide and carried by two women who managed to save it. The names of the women who saved it are lost. Silent Angel gives the women names and tells their story.

Mr. Pearce: The author of Silent Angel, Antonia Arslan, wrote a previous bestselling novel, Skylark Farm, also about the Armenian Genocide. Could you tell us a little about that novel and how it differs from Silent Angel?

Ms. Nash-Marshall: Skylark Farm (“La Masseria delle Allodole”) is Antonia Arslan’s first novel, and the first part of what is likely going to be a pentalogy. The second part is Road to Smyrna, the third The Sound of the Wooden Pearls. She dealt with part of it also in Letter to a Girl in Turkey. Alas, only the first has been published in English.

Skylark Farm is a personal novel for Arslan, as can be seen from her dedicating it to her aunt, a survivor of the genocide, with whom she grew up. It is a difficult story. Like all descendants of families and cultures ravaged by genocide, Antonia Arslan has had personally to deal with what can be called the problem of Job since her birth. Her family has seen evil face-to-face and has had to understand how to hold on and deepen their faith through it. And so has she. In Skylark Farm, she shows that diabolical evil, sparing no details. It was horrendous.

Like a true classicist, Arslan weaves her family’s story in Skylark Farm as an epic. This is the perfect genre for a Joblike story. It allows Arslan to weave a timeless perspective in her story.

Both of these things make Skylark Farm very different from Silent Angel. In Skylark Farm, Arslan is trying to grapple with the horror of what happened to her family and her people. In Silent Angel, she focuses on the saving of her people.

Mr. Pearce: Who or what is the “silent angel” that gives the novella its name?

Ms. Nash-Marshall: Antonia Arslan loves the title Silent Angel. In Italian, as we’ve mentioned, her novella was published with the title Book of Moush. There are many silent angels in Arslan’s novella. One of them is the Book of Moush itself. It cannot speak, so it is silent. But it can show, and by showing it becomes a messenger of God, bringing the message of salvation.

Another angel is the angelic guide who guards over the people who are called upon to save the book. The angel plays an important role in the story. Yet another angel in Silent Angel is Zacharias, the sole survivor of his village, who leads the party carrying the book to safety. Two more of the novella’s angels are the Greeks, Makarios and Eleni, who protect the Armenians who are saving the book from those who would kill them.

Silent Angel is filled with angels, with messengers of God. Arslan has laced the story with them.

Mr. Pearce: Without wishing to give the plot away, could you give us a summary, not of the plot but of the principal characters?

Ms. Nash-Marshall: Silent Angel is the story of Anoush, which means “sweet” in Armenian, and Kohar, which in Armenian means “jewel.” They are simple women. Anoush is a wife and mother, and is shy and soft-spoken. Kohar is boisterous, has a fiancé, and is a decision maker. They are farmers. They come from a beautiful place. In their adventure they are joined by Hovsep, which is Armenian for Joseph, who is an orphan; by Eleni, the Greek midwife; and her sweetheart, the Greek Makarios.

Mr. Pearce: The literary landscape of “Silent Angel illustrates the horrors of human cruelty and depravity but also the triumph of human endurance and virtue, as well as suggestions of God’s providential presence in the midst of darkness. In what ways does the novella achieve this, and what does it offer 21st-century Americans in the sense of its being somehow inspirational or applicable to our own times and culture?

Ms. Nash-Marshall: We are living in difficult times, and risk forgetting what is truly important in our lives. We are distracted by events, by violent emotions, by unrest. We also are always tempted to think that we are alone. This is especially true for us now, not just because of COVID-19, but because those links that once seemed to bind our society have loosened: families, parishes, communities.

Silent Angel reminds us what is important: the glorious Truth that saves us. It reminds us that that truth is not an abstract belief, but a real person. It reminds us that that person does not save us collectively. He saves us individually, and sends us beauty, messengers, hope, and strength.

(Editor’s note: This interview was originally posted at www.theepochtimes.com on June 28, 2020, and is reprinted here with kind permission of The Epoch Times.)


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About Joseph Pearce 21 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

11 Comments

  1. We read that “Dr. Nash-Marshall’s book exposes Turkish DENIALISM about the genocide and shows how the dehumanizing effects of MODERN PHILOSOPHY are responsible for the butchering of a whole people.”

    The serpentine lie in Genesis is less about the original sin than about its malignancy—the interior lie/denialism that follows. Not I, but she made me do it; and not I, but the serpent mislead me; not us, rather it did not happen at all! Politicized radicals are not radical (original) enough…

    The justified appeal for “racial” justice is derailed into (largely white!) mobocracy by many who are “educated”—now meaning what? Instead, identity politics, the industrial-educational complex (core requirements displaced by STEM and flea-market overspecializations), and virtual/instant-gratification “safe spaces” via smart phone tribalism.

    Some dude named Shakespeare is relevant on our serpentine denialism: “out damn spot, out I say” (MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 1); as is Burke on post-modernity’s calculated and butchering statue-toppling (memory genocide?): “those who destroy everything will likely remove some abuse” (Reflections on the Revolution in France).

  2. While this genocide by the Turks perpetuated against the Armenians is indeed well documented, it should not be forgotten this systemic killing was wider in scope which included Greeks and Assyrians among the victims. Even as the genocide is often examined from the perspective of ethnic cleaning, against the Armenians, to view this thirty year (1894-1924) genocide in a wider picture, one realizes this is religious cleansing by the Muslim Turks of their Christian neighbors in their effort to create a pure Muslim country. This should be forgotten: Muslims slaughtering Christians! A good recent book to read about this is by Jewish scholars Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, entitled “The Thirty Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities 1894-1924” (2019).

    • Not to “be forgotten” either was the possible and failed ROLE of the Western powers—still at the beginning—to exert pressure on the Sultan in Constantinople to avert the genocide of 1895 (which was accomplished either under his orders of at least with his knowing failure to intervene).

      Yet another tipping point in the not-inevitable “arc of history”?
      As for the Western powers, in addition to the their (a) desired and schemed PARTITION of Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) into spheres of imperial control (a fate averted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk following World War I), were (b) the divisive contradictions of their individual INTERESTS: England, Russia, France, Germany, Austria, Italy (and, less so, the United States whose non-political and only interest was protection of American citizens, but whose prestige and independence could have influenced both the Sultan and the European nations). The Western powers remained divided, distant and ineffective. Bismark’s famous line: “The whole Bulgarian [Armenian] nation is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”

      The Christian Armenians were partly at the “PERIPHERY” (in our complex world, now a generalized moral priority of Pope Francis) and the mercy of a divided West, and in the most hideous ways were then religiously victimized. In Turkey, the pre-genocide of 1895 prefigured the increased extermination, 20- or 30-fold, in the later Armenian Genocide.

    • Most fearless Ottoman military units, the janissaries, were comprised of young children of slaughtered Christians, who were taken taught to obey, fight, and never think for themselves. And so, even the “reeducation camps” of the communists are their original ideas. Communism simply takes the worst ideas from the most abhorrent “cultures” and appropriates them to “improve the lot of the proletariat…”

      What the Turks did to Armenians is about on par with what the contemporary ISIS does to contemporary Christians wherever it comes to power. Nihil novi sub sole…

      But I apologize. Mustn’t talk like that about the religion of peace…

  3. The refusal of the US government to officially recognize the Armenian genocide and the massacres that preceded it is a case study in just how powerful outside interests are in determining US foreign policy. And the Turks are not the only ones who have exerted influence on our easily purchased politicians with regard to this question. Hitler supposedly asked “Who remembers the Armenians?” Some genocide victims are more equal than others.

  4. In no manner mitigating the painful potency of this interview, would like to suggest the previous century’s first open genocide was that of Belgium’s against the people of what was then the Belgian Congo.

  5. It should be also noted that even this “social experiment” has been fueled by romantic western ideologies. This is curiously missing both in the interview and in comments.

  6. The Armenian Genocide was not the first genocide of the twentieth century (I also made that mistake in an article I once wrote). That “distinction” belongs to the murder of the Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia by the German army in 1904-1908.

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